Review: American Horror Story (Season 1)

January 23, 2012 in Reviews, TV by pacejmiller

It’s hard enough to find a decent 90 to 120-minute horror movie these days, which is why I was highly sceptical about American Horror Story, an entire 13-episode TV supernatural horror-themed series dedicated to a single, continuous storyline.

There’s a very good reason why we haven’t seen anything like this show before — because it’s bloody hard to do well.  For starters, it needs to be genuinely scary and “realistic” within the confines of its own universe, an almost impossible task in itself.  It also needs to sustain the interest of the audience for the entire season, which is difficult without the luxury of having a different story with different characters each week.

This is probably why I can’t think of any such US shows in recent years off the top of my head.  The Walking Dead is horror with a single arc but it’s not supernatural.  Supernatural has a core story arc but most weeks it’s a different story. The Ghost Whisperer is similar and hardly qualifies as horror.  From my memory bank at least, I think I have to go as far as American Gothic (1995) to find something with a vaguely similar concept — and as I recall that disintegrated into pure crap just a few episodes in and was cancelled after a short-lived season.  It’s just too difficult.

Amazingly, American Horror Story delivers.  It’s without a doubt the scariest TV show around and is right up there as one of the most intriguing.  And no, it does not even try to rely on cheap “boo” scares like most horror movies these days.  The show succeeds with tight scripts, an A-list cast and a genuinely twisted plot with even more twisted characters, delivering a continued, insidious sense of dread and regularly leaving a nasty taste in your mouth.

I would also call it quite a daring show, in the sense that it doesn’t hold back.  It’s mean and dirty and highly sexual (though not at all explicit or gratuitous).  There’s plenty of rage, jealously, lust and an unquenchable thirst for revenge threaded throughout the series and every episode is filled with murder and brutal violence.  It doesn’t shy away from things such as rape, murdering babies, horrifying deformities, dismemberment, disembowelment and macabre experiments — on both the living and the dead.  Because of its willingness to push the limits, there are lots of excellent surprises, none of which are easily guessable.

The characters are also incredibly juicy and memorable — every one of them has stories to tell and secrets to hide, but the mysteries are not frustratingly concealed all the way until the end — instead, they are slowly revealed as the layers are gradually peeled back, rewarding audiences for sticking with it.

The clever thing about this series is that each season is dedicated to a single ghost story.  Season 1 is all about the Harmon family, who move from Boston to LA into the “Murder House”, which is, of course, haunted.  The story begins and ends in Season 1, meaning that there is little risk of it dragging on unnecessarily or spiralling into inevitable crappiness.  Season 2, which has already been picked up, will be about an entirely different family and location, though certain members of the cast may return in different roles.

Speaking of cast members, American Horror Story boasts an impressive ensemble.  The Harmon couple is played by Dylan McDermott (best known as Bobby Donnell from The Practice) and Connie Britton (whom I am less familiar with but has been in Spin City and Friday Night Lights), with young Taissa Farmiga (Vera Farmiga’s significantly younger sister) as their teenage daughter.  Other regulars include Jessica Lange, Evan Peters (almost didn’t recognise him — he’s the nerdy kid with the camera from Never Back Down and its sequel), Denis O’Hare (True Blood), Kate Mara (Rooney’s older sister — who coincidentally starred with Britton in the 2010 Nightmare on Elm Street remake) and Zachary Pinto (Sylar from Heroes).

Everyone, human or ghost, does their job well, with the standouts being the youngsters Evans and Farmiga, though the one that steals just about every scene is Jessica Lange, who deservedly won a Golden Globe for her performance as the  mysterious and always-present neighbour.  She’s just such a fantastically twisted and tragic character and it was a thrill watching Lange play it to perfection.

Of course, as a supernatural horror, it is also much easier to find problems with the show.  It will obviously be harder for “sceptics” to appreciate it (some “believers” might also be turned off  as it flouts conventional “ghost” wisdom), and it’s not hard to poke holes and point out believability issues here and there.  But if you can keep an open mind and just go along for the ride, chances are you’ll find it as engrossing and captivating as I did.  I’ll definitely be looking out for Season 2.

Rating: B+

PS: Interestingly, American Horror Story is the brainchild of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the creators of Glee.  But I guess in a way it makes perfect sense — only people who could come up with a show as sickening as Glee could have come up with something as twisted as this show.